What do a hip-hop artist, a Haitian storyteller, an accordion player, a boat builder, culinary artist and an herbalist all have in common? They’re this year’s folk masters selected by the Florida Folklife Council, which is part of the state’s Division of Historical Resources.
And that hip-hop artist is Jacksonville’s Mal Jones.
The council is tasked with continuing Florida’s cultural folk-art traditions, and Jones will work with 12-year-old apprentice Amari Murrell over the next eight months doing just that.
Jones is the creator of “The Lyricist Live,” a monthly gathering at Jacksonville's downtown Art Walk. Jones plays five hours of beats and anyone can walk up and rhyme.
In a video from May Jones’s middle-school-aged son is beatboxing. He’s surrounded by other kids and adults too. Then Jones jumps in and starts rapping over his son’s beat.
“That’s my son right there. We don’t play. You can tell that’s my DNA,” are some of his lyrics.
This freestyle gathering is commonly called a cypher, and Jones holds his Lyricist Live cypher at every Art Walk.
“Every aspiring rapper that wants to can come up and exchange and rhyme and it’s really, it’s all improvisational,” he said.
Lots of kids and teens show up every month.
“They see what I’m doing and then they have an example that’s not someone they don’t know. Someone on the radio or someone that’s feeding them the wrong messages,” Jones said.
No cursing is allowed.
“You have to be creative and come up with creative things to say verses just being vulgar or saying whatever comes to your mind,” he said. “You have to think about it.”
This art form is what Jones will be teaching Amari. Jones said Murrell’s been consistently coming to his freestyle gatherings every month. The goal is for him to host a cypher of his own and to perform at the Florida Folk Festival over Memorial Day weekend.
“It gives them what I had in the early 90s before we had the internet, you know? We used to all come together and get together and get in these circles and just play beats and rhyme,” he said.
Birthplace Of Hip Hop
Jones is originally from the Bronx. “The birthplace of hip hop, the culture,” he said.
He moved to Florida when he was 10, but would visit New York and bring back mix tapes for his friends. His dad was a jazz musician, his uncle, a traditional African dancer.
“All of their art forms come together to make me who I am and what I do,” Jones said. “And hip-hop in its current state is a combination of all those things.”
Which is why it’s considered part of the folk tradition, stories passed down orally or through performance. In 2013, Jones became the first hip-hop artist whose work was archived in the Florida Folklife Program and the first hip-hop artist to ever perform at Florida Folk Festival in its 60-plus years said State Folklorist Amanda Hardeman.
Hardeman said hip hop is an underrepresented but emerging form of folk art. She said it combines breakdancing, DJing, emceeing and graffiti.
“As a folklorist, you’ll notice things,” she said. “You’ll notice sampling and recycling of sounds, an emphasis on improv, ... varied colors and patterns —all these things are part of earlier African-American traditions.”
Like traditional paintings, quilts and celebrations, she said.
Jacksonville-based Florida Folk Council member Keith Cartwright said people don’t normally think hip hop is folk. But his council has picked Jones as a master for two years in a row.
However, Jones has been mentoring kids on his own for a while. It even led the Jacksonville Electrical Authority to call on him to create a rhyme to teach students about electrical safety.
Jones says hip hop isn’t just something people consume, like tv and radio. It’s something they do.
“The culture lies within the people in the communities and what’s going on with them,” he said.
And he said that culture brings people together.
“That’s how hip hop started in the Bronx,” Jones said. “It was all about peace, unity, love, having fun, everybody coming together. And it was for the sole purpose of stopping the violence.”